Tuesday, February 16, 2010

ABC, NBC and CBS spent nearly a year promoting "Obama's stimulus cavalry"

President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan was the most expensive bill in history. Still, it received strong media support - blazing the way for the controversial bill to pass. Network journalists didn't just back the bill during that debate. Once it had passed, ABC, NBC and CBS spent nearly a year promoting "President Obama's stimulus cavalry," as NBC's Lisa Myers put it.

That much money was supposed to enter the economy through many different channels. Typically, where stimulus dollars went, journalists followed. They roamed the nation looking for proof the stimulus was succeeding, and sometimes proof it wasn't.

The Business & Media Institute analyzed 172 stories about the stimulus from Feb. 17, 2009, when the bill was signed, to Jan. 31, 2010. In those stories, the three evening news shows turned to proponents nearly three times as often as opponents of the plan (269 to just 111). Reporters called the Obama program or its many offshoots "good news," or turned to others whose positive views on the stimulus went further, with one calling the program a "lifesaver."

"It's the government that`s going to have to pull us out of this recession," Anthony Mason of CBS "Evening News" said on March 6. That was a consistent theme for the journalists involved. With the economy beaten down by the Great Recession, Americans needed Obama and the government to fix things and boost employment.

Anchor Katie Couric added to that theme when she introduced the story. "In a moment, we'll be telling you about all the jobs the stimulus plan is creating, but first why those jobs are so desperately needed."

That pro-stimulus approach impacted the reporting. All three broadcast networks promoted the stimulus prior to the vote. The same news media that backed Barack Obama during the election then turned to his "bold" push for a stimulus plan. Two broadcast networks - ABC and NBC - showed particularly strong support for the president by relying on pro-stimulus voices by a more-than 2-to-1 ratio (139 to 56). As reporter Scott Cohn told the NBC "Nightly News" audience about a struggling Indiana community. "Economic stimulus isn't just a political debate around here. It could be a matter of survival."

In the year following the passage of the stimulus package, network journalists embraced both the spending and the programs that went along with it. Story after story detailed how a few hundred thousand dollars or a few million dollars would aid essential programs and, in Obama's words, "save or create" millions of jobs.

That was what viewers of ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson," CBS "Evening News" and NBC "Nightly News" heard for almost a year. Those three favored pro-stimulus speakers 71 percent to 29 percent (269 to just 111).

NBC was the worst of the three networks. It relied on stimulus supporters in its stories by more than a factor of 3-to-1 (110 supporters to just 31 critics). At the same time, NBC only included any sort of criticism of the $787 billion plan in 43 percent of its stories.

While CBS included some criticism of the stimulus in three fourths of its stories (30 out of 40), the network still found several ways to boost the president. During an April 29 broadcast, Anthony Mason described Obama in laudatory terms. "As he's tried to lead the country through the crisis, President Obama has offered both caution and hope."

Another CBS story celebrated how D.C. had turned into a new financial capital. Mason told viewers about "matchmaking sessions to link them with government agencies giving out stimulus money." He even quoted Washington power broker and "King of K Street" Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. who seemed thrilled that the "total pie is way over $2 trillion" to grab for clients. As Mason added, "Government officials like these at the Transportation Department can't give it out fast enough."

That report included only mild criticism of the feeding frenzy.

ABC's coverage of the stimulus also ignored critics more than half the time, but lacked CBS's blatantly positive comments about the plan or the president who promoted it.

Even when reporters showed some of the obvious flaws of the stimulus program, they still depicted it as "working." NBC's Lisa Myers pointed out one of the marketing angles of the Obama bill including signs crediting new work to the government. "At this road project in Maryland a sign tells all who pass by that the money for repaving came from the stimulus package." She went on to say that the Obama administration has urged states to put up such signs, even though they "can cost as much as $1,200."

But Myers then followed with a more typical report including three people, two supporting the program and just one opposed.

The pro-stimulus position of the three networks was almost identical to the one taken leading up to the passage of the bill. Then both ABC and NBC showed particularly strong support for the president by relying on pro-stimulus voices by a more-than 2-to-1 ratio (139 to 56). That 71 percent total was the same percentage of pro-stimulus voices these two networks used throughout the year (183 positive to just 74 critics). More...

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